Horse Wounds 101 (Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention)

Horse Wounds 101 (Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention)

Photo: The Horse Staff

Warmer weather means that horses are getting more turnout time. Unfortunately, with increased activity all horses are at a higher risk of sustaining traumatic lacerations or other wound types. Some might appear more serious than others. Often the wound might be hours, days, or even weeks old before it is observed. Complications frequently develop as older wounds heal, and this can significantly impact your horse's ability to recover.

Clinical Signs

Depending on the location of the wound, horses can develop a variety of clinical signs. Often, horses with a new wound are painful and nervous (care should be taken when handling these horses to prevent further injury to the horse, you, and others around you). Alternatively, horses that have suffered a significant amount of blood loss, or had a foreign object (such as a tree branch) penetrate their abdominal or thoracic body cavities, might appear dull and lethargic, exhibit signs of colic, or have difficulty breathing. A horse with a leg wound might be reluctant to walk or might show signs of lameness. If a horse suffers eye damage or his eyelid function is compromised, his vision might be impacted.


A horse that has sustained a serious wound should be considered a true emergency and you should consult your veterinarian immediately for guidance. Wounds potentially involving joints, tendons/ligaments, tendon sheaths, hoof capsules, body cavities, or eyes should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately, as trauma to these areas can lead to severe problems and even threaten your horse's life.

The wound location, its duration (how old it is), and degree of tissue damage will influence your veterinarian's wound treatment recommendations. For wounds located near a joint or tendon sheath, your veterinarian often will perform diagnostics to determine if these structures have been compromised. These might include wound exploration and probing, joint tap, joint fluid analysis and microbial culture, radiography (including the use of contrast material), ultrasound, and possibly arthroscopic surgery.


After determining the degree of damage, your veterinarian will choose an appropriate management option.

In general wounds are managed in one of three ways:

  • First intention healing (primary wound closure) involves closure using sutures, skin staples, or a combination of the two.
  • Delayed first intention healing involves delaying wound closure until the nature of the wound and surrounding structures are fit to provide optimal closure. An example of this is a wound on the lower limb that has developed significant soft-tissue swelling or the presents of cellulitis (localized infection within the surrounding skin). Soiled wounds or those containing significant dirt and debris might require several days of cleaning and tissue debridement before they are ready for closure.
  • Second intention healing involves leaving a wound open to heal and is often used when primary closure isn't feasible or when a wound dehisces (sutures fail) following primary closure.

Your veterinarian might also prescribe medications for your horse. Antibiotics are often used to prevent development of a bacterial infection or treat an already existing infection. Anti-inflammatories (such as phenylbutazone) can help improve healing time, while providing pain relief. You should also ask your veterinarian about your horse's tetanus vaccination status.

Bandages are often used to provide protection, minimize contamination, provide support, and serve as a vehicle for delivering medicated ointments or dressings to the site. There are many types of topical ointments and dressings available to help improve healing. Discuss which products to use with your veterinarian, as not all wounds require topical treatment and certain products can be detrimental if used inappropriately.


While there might not be fail-safe management options for preventing lacerations, it is important to minimize the types of objects in the horse's environment that could potentially lead to wounds. Barbed wire is often a culprit in causing wounds, but smooth, high-tensile wire can be as much of a threat. Be proactive about assuring a safe environment, and monitor your horses on a regular basis when they are turned out this spring.

About the Author

Casey Gruber, DVM

Casey Gruber, DVM, is an associate veterinarian at Moore Equine Veterinary Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he specializes in podiatry and emergency and sport horse care. He’s a graduate of Colorado State University.

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